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You Lack One Thing
We start off with a young man well versed in the rituals of his time, greeting Jesus with the appropriate respect and formality only to have Jesus deliver news so unwelcome that probably wonders why he was so cordial in the first place. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus tells him, after giving him the opportunity to affirm the ten commandments like it was his list of credentials, that he needs to get one more thing…
or, in this case, he needs to get rid of one more thing. It’s not welcome news to him any more than it is to any of us when the often annoying voice of the Holy Spirit tells us something in prayer or in study or in conversation that we know we need to hear but really don’t want to hear. Have you heard this voice before? Hey, friend – you lack one thing if you’re on going to stay on this holy road. You’re almost there. One more hurdle to cross. Just give a little more, love a little more, trust a little more. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! Keep pressing on the upward way. Move on up a little higher! All inspirational, powerful lessons that we sometimes don’t want to hear.
We just want our question answered, Jesus. You are as elusive as the best politician, answering something totally different than what I asked! I didn’t ask you for difficult truth, I just want the easy, two-step formula for eternal life, the magic key that unlocks the gate. What must I do, we all wonder? What must I do to gain heaven, to acquire salvation, to get liberation, freedom, compassion, belonging, relief? C’mon Jesus, it’s a simple question.
This man’s question seems simple, too – what must I do to inherit eternal life? Not what must I do to earn it. Not what must I do to see it or make it or find it.What must I do to inherit it? Chances are very high that inheritance is precisely what the rich man has “done” to become a rich man. He got born to the right people. That’s a really good first step…I advise that everyone choose their parents carefully. Also helpful if you choose the right gender, race and orientation, too. Born into his privilege, the man hopes out loud that he can be “born again” to the right people and gain another inheritance. It’s his model, his framework for seeing the world, his paradigm that Jesus lifts up for him to see. He begins with what I think is a setup – have you done all the right things? Have you followed the rules, have you graduated from the right schools, do you belong to the right fraternity, do you wear the right suits and present the way you are supposed to present? Yes, yes and yes – Jesus. I look the part. I’m entitled to this eternal life – so what other hurdles do I need to jump?
He goes away, the text tells us, stugnasas, a Greek word which often gets translated as “sad” or “grieving”, but also means shocked, or appalled. When told that he’s actually not entitled to this, he is appalled. Maybe even angry. When told that just checking off the boxes is not what God is looking for, that God’s plumb line is actually a little higher than memorizing scripture verses, saying the right things and not murdering people or stealing from them, he is shocked. And when Jesus confronts him with the unwelcome idea that he lacks one more thing, that repentance means actually doing things differently, that having “treasure in heaven” will cost you something here, he is ticked off about it.
Now as tempting as it is, we ought to be very careful about painting this passage as a treatise against rich people – no, no, my friends, the Gospel won’t let us off the hook so easily. Throughout chapter 10, Mark’s Jesus is trying to get us to look at the things in which we place our faith…and – spoiler alert – there’s something for all of us. There is legalism, social position, status, authority, wealth, a false sense of superiority, an attitude, as they say, it is power, or our privilege, which I must remind us all, comes in many forms. Jesus lays down that directive to sell all his possessions and give that money away not because it is a universal directive for all people in all places for all time, but because, for this man, the possessions are where he lodges his faith. It is the thing that has kept all of his other piety, his devotion and observance of the instructions of faith from actually making him faithful. His possessions have driven a wedge between him and the world around him, keeping him from what faithful living ought to do, which is grow our hearts and expand our compassion. And Jesus’ solution is direct – let’s take all your money and give it away…let’s divest you of this thing that has distorted your vision, this thing that stands between you and all else in God’s creation, so that you can live by trusting in God’s way – by being in solidarity with your neighbor, which is like having, in Jesus’ kin-dom vision, treasure in heaven.
What Jesus wants to know from this man is this – where is your line? Where do you think that God doesn’tgo? Where are you unwilling to cross though Jesus himself stands on the other side and calls out to you – come on over! What do you cling to as God asks you to let go? From Genesis to the prophets to Jonah to the Gospels to the book of Acts the the letters of Paul, the Bible is full of stories about the lines in the sand that God beckons us to cross. As soon as we claim to know God, our own scripture and traditions tell us, God is more than we imagined. As soon as we are sure that we have the rules down well enough to start using them against other people, God moves the goalposts. As soon as we are sure that we hate the the right people – you know, the ones that God hates also – word comes to us that God is standing on the other side of the lines we have drawn, begging us to love more…to let that love overshadow our hate, our control, our power, for we…only…lack…one…thing.
The man goes away grieving. He can’t “get there” with Jesus. It’s a hurdle he can’t jump. And Jesus is good at this – constantly setting up for us the idea that the kin-dom of God doesn’t happen with us gaining something, but with us giving something up. Some people need to give up thinking that the point of God is following the rules, or that some people matter more than others. Others need to divest themselves of the idea that God is predictable and logical, or that faith is something you can verify and lock down. And some of us need to get rid of the feeling that God can’t possibly love us…maybe everyone else, but not us. Or, maybe it’s something even bigger, like the kin-dom of God will not come without you giving up the assertion that some people get to define, codify and enforce “normal,” forever enshrining the example with a certain gender, skin tone, accent, orientation, worship-style, interpretive answer, etc, etc, etc. The kin-dom only comes with change. I’ll say that again – the kin-dom only comes with change.
This is ultimately what the rich man’s grief is about, isn’t it? He’s going to have to change – I mean fundamentally change– in order to gain the very thing he says that he’s been seeking all this time. But he won’t, and contained in that refusal is the realization that perhaps he hasn’t actually been seeking the thing he says he’s been seeking this whole time. He has a lot to grieve, my friends, as he walks away, resisting the words of Jesus still echoing in his ears.
He grieves because “how do I inherit eternal life” isn’t really a question about heaven. Oh, we think it is, shaped by generations of theological manipulation that create a door to heaven and conveniently give the church the only key. It’s a good way to keep the membership roles filled, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus means when he talks about eternal life. In Greek the man asks something more like what he must do to be enjoying his allotment of life beyond this era. “This era” in the Jesus movement language from Peter to Paul, is an era of selfishness, greed and oppression. So when the man asks how he can assure his ticket to the next chapter while also insuring that his riches come with him, how he might have a world of inclusion and justice, let’s say, but maintain the order and structure of the previous world of exclusion and injustice, Jesus reminds him that you can’t get there from here. What you value will have to change for the world to change. What you treasure here must be different for any “treasure in heaven” to come.
If our salvation is about more than what happens to us after we die, and I believe that it is, then here, at this particular moment in history, we must divest ourselves of our borders, we must dare to risk more than the rich man was willing to risk, to closely examine that thing we lack and choose to reshape our values, seeking to hear perspectives from outside our bubbles, and understanding that the Gospel truth always lies just beyond the place where we have drawn a line. We – and by “we” I especially mean people who look like me – have to be willing to give up the idea that being “right” is the same thing as being “holy,” that winning is the same thing as following Jesus, or that being comfortable is the same thing as being blessed.
This isn’t a judgment story from Mark, it’s a healing story. The story of seeking a just world, of working to create equity and inclusion, compassion and mercy isn’t a story of judgment, it’s a story of healing, what our Jewish siblings call tikkun olam the great healing of the world. Itis the story of how we can participate in our own and other people’s healing by meeting their weakness with our own weakness, trusting in the way of Jesus and knowing that while for us it may be impossible, with God all things are possible. As much as I want some of God’s judgment to come down right now…and fall precisely on the people who I want it to…it is not judgment that is God’s goal. Love is God’s goal. It must be ours, too, for no healing comes without love. Wasteful, sacrificial, angry, dedicated, pliable, hurting, merciful, truth-telling love, redistributing our carefully arranged hierarchies, resisting our own resistance, written on our hearts like a revolution, and constantly reviving us, leaving our ears echoing with the call –
(pastor starts the singing) I have decided to follow Jesus (x3) no turning back, no turning back.